The benefits of studying a nursing or midwifery course in Scotland are academic as well as social, says Caitran Guthrie

When Allan left school he had planned to develop a career in the business industry and thought that he would follow this path for the majority of his working life. He had always interacted well with people and was fairly confident that he would continue to grow and develop within this work environment. But then something happened which made him stop and take stock of his life. A close friend developed a mental illness, a severe depression, and Allan wanted to find a way to help his friend. Allan sought guidance from the Community Psychiatric Nurse at his GP's practice, discussed ways of interacting with his friend, and followed this up by reading about depression and other forms of mental illness.

Today, Allan is working as a Mental Health Nurse. He doesn't think he's out of the ordinary. He's just doing his job, a job he loves. To his clients, Allan is someone they can rely on to help them live with their illness while in hospital or living in the community. About 20 per cent of the population, regardless of age, will have to cope with some form of mental illness at least once in their life.

Are you interested in a career working with people who are experiencing mental health problems? The Robert Gordon University offers programmes that lead to qualification as a Registered Nurse (Mental Health), and a choice of academic award at diploma or degree level. The Mental Health Nursing programmes draw from the fields of behavioural and life sciences, as well as exploring the art and science of Mental Health Nursing. The programmes are delivered in partnership with practice settings, which involve NHS and Voluntary Agencies, and provide you with an opportunity to work with people who have diverse health care needs, for example, people who have low self esteem, may hear voices, may feel frightened and confused.

The following are illustrations of the kinds of experiences which students encounter within the programmes:

Judy is 20 years old, and in Year 3 of her programme and, with the other members of her class, is sharing her recent clinical experience which was within an elderly care area, with most people suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's Disease. While Judy, as with all health care workers, showed respect for the people for which she was caring, in that personal details remained confidential, Judy was able to share her knowledge of the mental illness, and the therapeutic interactions which she observed and participated with during her practice placement.

People with Alzheimer's Disease experience difficulty with remembering recent events, and become quite confused and frightened, and as the disease progresses will find it increasingly difficult to communicate very fundamental needs. What Judy discovered was that, drawing from her knowledge and skills of interpersonal communication, there were ways in which she could interact and effectively minimise the fear that the person was experiencing. It was also clear that interactions which involved approaches such as reality orientation, validation, and reminiscence, were helpful in improving quality of life, for the people suffering from the disease, and their family.

David is 17 years old, in Year 1 of his programme and on his first practice placement within a ward which cares for people going through an acute phase of their illness. David was at first very unsure of what to do, however with the help of his practice supervisor and his personal tutor he is discovering that the placement is challenging, rewarding but most of all allowing him to learn so much more about people. At the moment he is particularly involved with a woman who has become extremely unwell following the birth of her first child. He can see that she is finding it difficult to talk to anyone, and that she has been neglecting herself and her baby. David is learning that this is because she is unable to care for herself and the baby, not that she should 'pull herself together'; she can't. However, by spending time with her, and being prepared to encourage and to listen, he is finding that she does want to talk. Also, as part of a multi-disciplinary team, he can see how each team member pulls together the care package for this mother and baby, and shares in their confidence that she will recover.

Morag is 20 years old, and in Year 2 of her programme. When she qualifies as a Registered Nurse she wants to work with young people and their families. This desire has arisen from an experience, when she was working with a community psychiatric nurse, of being involved with a 14 year old young woman who had a history of truancy from school, abusive behaviour, and admission to an Accident and Emergency department as a result of drug overdose. What became clear to Morag was the importance of developing a trusting relationship, one that accepted and recognised this young woman as a person, and that as a nurse Morag could help this young woman to identify the stressors in her life, and develop alternative ways for coping. What was also clear to Morag was that this kind of relationship demanded courage and commitment; courage to examine one's own attitudes and beliefs, and commitment in that the relationship may need to continue over a period of months, even years.

The above illustrations are to provide a picture of what the work of a Mental Health Nurse involves, and the key qualities are to be caring, compassionate, and the desire to reach out to someone who, for a period of time, is in need. Should you wish to pursue a career in Mental Health Nursing, further information can be provided through contacting the Customer Services Department at The Robert Gordon University, telephone 01224 262148.